What Is A Profiling Essay

Anoka Ramsey Community College
English 1121: College Writing and Critical Reading
Fall 2001 / Sections 3 and 6
Portfolio #1: Profile Essay

Assignment:

Write an essay of 3-4 pages about an intriguing person, place, or activity in your community.  Choose one of the two following options: (1) a brief profile of an event, a place, or an activity observed once or twice; or (2) a brief profile of an individual based on one or two interviews.  (There are longer, more fully developed profiles, but these are based on several observational visits and interviews.)  Observe your subject closely, and then present what you have learned in a way that both informs and engages readers.  Two restrictions: you cannot choose to profile a family member or the State Fair.

Basic Information:

Magazines and newspapers are filled with profiles.  Unlike conventional news stories, which report current events, profiles tell about people, places, and activities.  Some profiles take us behind the scenes of familiar places, giving us a glimpse of their inner workings.  Others introduce us to the exotic�peculiar hobbies, unusual professions, bizarre personalities.  Still others probe the social, political, and moral significance of our institutions.

Profiles share many features with autobiography, such as narrative, anecdote, description, and dialogue.  Yet profiles differ significantly from autobiography.  Whereas an autobiographer reflects on a remembered personal experience, a profile writer synthesizes and presents newly acquired observations.  In writing a profile, you practice the field research methods of observing, interviewing, and notetaking, commonly used by investigative reporters, social scientists, and naturalists.  You also learn to analyze and synthesize the information you have collected.

A profile is a special kind of research project.  Profiles always involve visits: meeting with a person or going to a place.  Profile writers take notes from observations and interviews and may pick up reading materials at a place they are profiling.  They may even need to conduct library research to gather information about the history and specialized aspects of a place or an activity.

Profile Essays:

  • Are based on a writer�s newly acquired observations.

  • Take readers behind the scenes of familiar places or introduce readers to unusual places and people.

  • Provide information while at the same time arousing readers� curiosity.

  • Present scenes and people vividly and concretely through description, action, and dialogue.

  • Reveal an attitude toward their subjects and offer�implicitly or explicitly�an interpretation of them.

  • Create a dominant impression of the subject.

Purpose and Audience Considerations:

A profile writer�s primary purpose is to inform readers.  Readers expect profiles to present information in an engaging way, however.  Whether profiling people, places, or activities, the writer must meet these expectations.  Although a reader might learn as much about a subject from an encyclopedia entry, reading the profile is sure to be more enjoyable.

Readers of profiles expect to be surprised by unusual subjects.  If the subject is familiar, they expect it to be presented from an unusual perspective.  When writing a profile, you will have an immediate advantage if your subject is a place, an activity, or a person that is likely to surprise and intrigue your readers.  Even if your subject is very familiar, however, you can still engage your readers by presenting it in a way they had never before considered.

A profile writer has one further concern: to be sensitive to readers� knowledge of a subject.  Since readers must imagine the subject profiled and understand the new information offered about it, the writer must carefully assess what readers are likely to have seen and to know.

Profile writers must also consider whether readers are familiar with the terminology they want to use.  Because profiles involve information, they inevitably require definitions and illustrations.  Since profile writers are not writing technical manuals or textbooks, they can choose to define only terms that readers need to know to follow what is going on.  Some concepts or activities will require extended illustrations.

Summary of Basic Features:

1.  An Intriguing, Well-Focused Subject:

The subject of a profile is typically a specific person, place, or activity.  And, although profiles focus on a person, a place, or an activity, they usually contain all three elements�certain people performing a certain activity at a particular place.

Skilled profile writers make even the most mundane subjects interesting by presenting them in a new light.  They many simply take a close look at a subject usually taken for granted, or they surprise readers with a subject they had never thought of.  Whatever they examine, they bring attention to the uniqueness of the subject, showing what is remarkable about it.

2.  A Vivid Presentation:

Profiles particularize their subjects rather than generalize about them.  Because profile writers are interested more in presenting individual cases than in making generalizations, they present their subjects vividly and in detail.

Successful profile writers master the writing strategies of description, often using sensory imagery and figurative language�the senses of sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing, and figures of speech such as simile and metaphor.

Profile writers often describe people in graphic detail.  They reveal personal habits and characteristic poses.  They also use dialogue to reveal character.

3.  A Dominant Impression:

Readers expect profile writers to convey a particular impression or interpretation of the subject.  They want to know the writer�s insights into the subject after having spent time observing the scene and talking to people.  Indeed, this interpretation is what separates profiles from mere exercises in description and narration.

To convey a dominant impression, writers carefully select details of scene and people and put these details together in a particular way.  They also express an attitude toward the subject, an attitude that can be implied through details or stated explicitly.  For example, a writer may express admiration, concern, detachment, fascination, skepticism, amusement�perhaps even two or three different feelings that complement or contradict one another.

Writers also offer interpretations of their subjects.  An interpretation may be implied or stated directly.  It can be announced at the beginning, woven into the ongoing observations, or presented as a conclusion.  In combination with carefully orchestrated details and a clearly expressed attitude, these interpretations give readers a dominant impression of the subject being profiled.  The effort to create a dominant impression guides all the writer�s decisions about how to select materials and how to organize and present them.

4.  An Engaging and Informative Plan:

Successful profile writers know that if they are to keep their readers� attention, they must engage as well as inform.  For this reason, they tell their stories dramatically and describe people and places vividly.  They also control the flow of unfamiliar information carefully.  Whether the overall plan is topical or chronological, writers give much thought to where unfamiliar information is introduced and how it is introduced.

Profiles present a great deal of factual detail about their subject.  However, the information can be woven into the essay in bits and pieces�conveyed in dialogue, interspersed throughout the narrative, given in description�rather than presented in one large chunk.

Parceling out information in this way makes it easier to comprehend: Readers can master one part of the information before going on to the next.  Perhaps even more important, such control injects a degree of surprise and thus makes readers curious to know what will come next.  Controlling the information flow may, in fact, help to keep readers reading, especially when the essay is organized around topics or aspects of the information.

Narration may be even more important, for it is used by many profile writers to organize their essays.  Some profiles even read like stories, with suspense building to a dramatic climax.  Writers can organize their narratives to develop and sustain suspense and drama.

Topics for Profiles:

Before you list possible subjects, consider realistically the time you have available and the amount of observing and interviewing you will be able to accomplish.  You will have about a week to plan and write up one observational visit or interview, so this should determine what kinds of subjects will be appropriate for you.  Consult with your professor if you need help defining the scope of your writing project.  When you list subjects, consider every subject you can think of, even unlikely ones.  Consider unfamiliar subjects � people, places, or activities you find fascinating or bizarre or perhaps even forbidding.  Take risks.  People like to read about the unusual.

People:

  • Anyone with an unusual or intriguing job or hobby � a private detective, beekeeper, classic-car owner, dog trainer

  • A prominent local personality � parent of the year, labor organizer, politician, consumer advocate, television or radio personality, community activist

  • A campus personality � ombudsman, coach, distinguished teacher

  • Someone recently recognized for service or achievement

  • Someone whose predicament symbolizes that of other people

Places:

  • A weight-reduction clinic, tanning salon, body-building gym, health spa, nail salon

  • Small-claims court, juvenile court, consumer-fraud office

  • A used-car lot, old movie house, used-book store, antique shop, historic site, auction hall, flower show, farmers� market

  • A hospital emergency room, hospice, birthing center, psychiatric unit

  • A local diner; the oldest, biggest, or quickest restaurant in town; a coffeehouse

  • The campus radio station, computer center, agricultural research facility, student center, faculty club, museum, newspaper office, health center

  • A book, newspaper, or magazine publisher; florist shop, nursery, or greenhouse; pawnshop; boatyard; automobile restorer or wrecking yard

  • A recycling center; fire station; airport control tower; theater, opera, or symphony office; refugee center; orphanage; convent or monastery

Activities:

  • A citizens� volunteer program � voter registration, public television auction, meals-on-wheels project, tutoring program

  • An unconventional sports event � marathon, Frisbee tournament, chess match, Special Olympics

  • Folk dancing, rollerblading, rock climbing, poetry reading

Note: This information was taken from Chapter 4 of The St. Martin�s Guide to Writing, 5th edition, by Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper, New York: St. Martin�s Press, 1997, pp. 108-155.


�2001 Scott Stankey / All rights reserved
Last revised on July 09, 2009 by Scott Stankey
Please address comments to Stankesc@an.cc.mn.us

Observation and interview are two important aspects of a profile essay. This type of essay can be about a place, a person, or an event, but it is more than just a description. The profile essay also usually includes the writer's interpretation of the person, place, or event. It is because of this interpretation that almost any subject can be suitable for a profile essay.

If the profile essay is about a person, it doesn't necessarily have to be someone well known. For example, profile essays may be used as assignments in college composition courses in which two classmates partner up and write profiles about each other. They must prepare interview questions, conduct the interview, and then arrange the information in a way that provides what is known as a dominant impression. This is usually the interpretation of the profile subject that the writer wants to convey. Doing this type of essay in this context not only provides students with an opportunity to improve their interviewing and writing skills but can introduce them to their classmates as well.

Interviewing may also be used if the profile essay is about a place or an event. In this case, interviews may be conducted with people who are familiar with the place or event in order to get background information and opinions. Another way to gather impressions in this situation is to go to the place or attend the event and record observations. This may include observing the actual setting itself, as well as observing the people who inhabit the place or attend the event.

A profile essay should include specific ideas and details rather than generalizations. In other words, including descriptive detail provides a stronger dominant impression for the reader. Details about a person being profiled may include a character sketch, while details about a place may include a vivid description about what the place looks like or how it affects the senses. The point of view the writer is trying to convey helps determine which details the writer chooses to include in the essay.

There are many different writing devices that can be used in a profile essay. In addition to description, some of these may include anecdotes — or stories about the person, place, or event — narrative, and dialogue. It is important to take careful notes when interviewing if dialogue or direct quotes are going to be used in the profile essay, as they should be exactly what was said by the person being interviewed.

A unique aspect of profile essays is that they are both objective and subjective. This means that, while the writer is stating facts to inform the reader about the person, place, or event, he or she is also conveying a perspective to the reader. One way to learn more about profile essays is to read profiles and interviews. These will demonstrate how the writer uses a combination of facts and observation to convey an impression.

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